The Sacramento State women’s basketball team is riding a five-game winning streak and, as the Big Sky Conference leader, is off to its best conference start in program history.
It may seem surprising since the Hornets (7-10, 5-1) started the season 2-10 with a loss in their Big Sky opener at Northern Arizona on Jan. 1.
But Sac State coach Bunky Harkleroad said that record was misleading.
The Hornets were playing a tough schedule that included four Pacific-12 Conference opponents. They also were introducing nine new players to Division I basketball while playing nine of the 12 on the road.
They also hadn’t yet learned how to win.
“In five or six of those games, we had leads but then had a meltdown along the way,” Harkleroad said.
Since their New Year’s Day loss, the Hornets have defeated both 2014 co-Big Sky regular-season champions (North Dakota and Southern Utah) and five of the top six teams in the preseason conference media poll.
The latest was Eastern Washington (11-5, 4-1) on the road Saturday night. The Hornets scored the last eight points to beat the Eagles 73-67. That came two nights after winning 107-89 at Idaho (8-8, 2-3).
“We’re more experienced now in those situations,” Harkleroad said. “I think our players got tired of losing. But the bottom line is they are playing better defensively and playing harder.”
Sac Stateleads NCAA Division I with 12.8 three-pointers, 15.7 steals and 20 offensive rebounds per game. The Hornets are second in turnover margin (plus-10.53) and fifth in scoring (84.4).
Senior point guard Fantasia Hilliard continues to be a catalyst. She was named the Big Sky Player of the Week after averaging 18.5 points, 3.5 assists, three steals and committing just three turnovers in the wins over Idaho and Eastern Washington.
But offensive balance – only Hilliard and sophomore forward Hallie Gennett average double figures in scoring ‑ and strong team defense have defined the Hornets in conference.
The Hornets, who play at home against Idaho State (8-9, 3-3) tonight and Weber State (7-10, 2-4) on Saturday, have made a 22-point improvement in conference play after allowing 96.1 points per game in nonconference.
Hornet men on road – The Sac State men have created plenty of buzz in moving atop the Big Sky after beating visiting Eastern Washington 90-77 on Saturday.
The win also lifted the Hornets into the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25 at No. 25 for the first time in school history.
But Sac State coach Brian Katz knows the excitement could be short-lived as the Hornets (11-6, 5-1) play tonight at Idaho State (4-14, 1-5) then Saturday at defending champion Weber State (8-9, 3-3).
On paper, the Hornets appear to have the clear advantage. But even though the Hornets continue to show steady improvement every season of Katz’s seven-year tenure, they have yet to become a road warrior in the 12-team conference that is spread over nine states.
The Hornets are 8-46 in conference road games during the Katz reign, including 1-1 this season. Sac State won one Big Sky road game two seasons ago and two last year.
More cause for pause: Sac State has dropped three of its past four games at Idaho State and has won once at Weber State since joining the Big Sky in 1996.
Aggie women in second – The UC Davis women (8-8, 3-1 Big West) enter tonight’s game against visiting Hawaii (9-7, 1-2) one game out of first place in the conference standings.
Senior forward Sydnee Fipps, now the Aggies’ No. 2 career scorer, had 29 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a 70-61 win over UC Riverside last week, and freshmen Dani Nafekh and Rachel Nagel combined for 28 points in a 64-59 come-from-behind win over Cal State Fullerton.
The game will be a homecoming for three Hawaii players: freshmen forward Dalayna Sampton (Florin High School) and guard Jasmin Redmon (Monterey Trail) and junior guard Marissa Wimbley (Pleasant Grove).
UCD men eye milestones – With a win tonight at Hawaii (13-6, 1-2), the Aggies (14-3, 4-0) could set D-I school records with 15 overall and seven road wins. But the Rainbow Warriors are tough on their home court, where they have won 10 times this season.
Aggies star Corey Hawkins had one of the best games of his career in helping UCD win at Hawaii two years ago. He scored a career-high 40 points to break a 34-year-old single-game school scoring record.
Hawkins has scored 28, 26 and 26 points in the Aggies’ past three Big West Conference games and has moved to No. 4 on UCD’s career scoring list with 1,443 points.
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.
UPCOMING BASKETBALL GAMES
Men: Today at Idaho State, 6:05 p.m., 1380; Saturday at Weber State, 6:05 p.m., 1380; Jan. 29 vs. Montana State, 7:05 p.m., 1380
Women: Today vs. Idaho State, 7 p.m.; Saturday vs. Weber State, 2 p.m.; Jan. 29 at Montana State, 6 p.m.
Men: Today at Hawaii, 9 p.m., 105.5; Jan. 29 vs. UC Santa Barbara, 7 p.m., 105.5
Women: Today vs. Hawaii, 7 p.m., 90.3; Jan. 29 at Cal Poly, 7 p.m., 90.3